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January 3, 2006

60 Years After - Some Personal History Questions

My recent connection with Susanne Schleyer, a German photographer who has done several large-scale photo exhibitions, questioning Germany history, has reopened some of my own questions about history. As you know I was born in Austria, more than 20 years after the Second World War. I left my home country at the early age of 20 to come to Canada, and to be frank, when I was growing up I always felt like I was a bit of an outsider, a rebel who didn't quite fit in.

It is now just about 60 years after the end of World War II, one of the modern world's key historical events. My father was a key person in my own personal history, mostly because of his physical and emotional absence, and my absence of knowledge about him and his past. What I do know is that he was drafted at the age of 17, in 1941, that he was an ardent Nazi, and that he fought both on the East and West Front. I do know that my father remained a racist until the end of his life. Until 1994, when my father was on his death bed, I had never had a personal conversation with him, and even at that time I was unable to get any insights about his past or personal involvement in World War II.

This immediate personal connection to one of the most horrifying (if not the most horrifying) eras of human history has rummaged around in my subconscious for a long time. Even as a child I had a real interest in the Second World War, and particularly in the Holocaust. What has puzzled me for a long time is how could human beings, regular human beings from my own neck of the woods, go down these dark roads of inhumanity and evil.

The mass psychology of the Third Reich has always fascinated and scared me because many people seemed to have lost all vestiges of civility and turned into hateful obedient tools of death and destruction for Hitler's regime. That fact that Hitler was born in Austria, and that many of the top Nazis were from my home country, has fuelled my profound interest in this era. I can't help but feel a certain sense of shame and guilt for what members of the generation before me did.

The two key topics that have impacted me the most are the psychology of the victims and the psychology of the perpetrators. For many years I have been reading books written by survivors of the Holocaust, about the time after the Nazis came to power in 1933, the time before the war, the early years of WWII when some emigration was still possible, stories about the Jewish ghettos in Warsaw and Lodz, stories of emigrants living in exile all over the world, and stories of survivors who reported about the horrific crimes against humanity that were committed in the concentration camps. Most recently I have been reading survivor stories about how survivors coped after the War and rebuilt their lives, started families and tried fit into a normal existence again, despite all the trauma they had gone through that kept reappearing in their lives, even after liberation.

I have also read some interviews with perpetrators, about how many of them claimed that they were just following orders, that they had no choice but to obey these orders. That doesn't answer the questions for me why many of the perpetrators participated so ardently in some of the atrocities, as if they derived some sadistic pleasure out of these events. The key question for me is: how would I have reacted if I had lived in these times? Would I have stood up for some human principles? Or would I have quietly collaborated, turning a blind eye, trying to avoid unpleasant attention from the authorities? Or would I have been an opportunist, participating in whatever ways necessary to ensure my own personal gain?

The generation immediately before me, first and foremost represented by my own father, remains a mystery to me. I strongly hesitate to say that people from my geographic area (Central and Eastern Europe, including Germany, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine and neighbouring countries) have a propensity towards racism, since that in itself would be a prejudiced thing to say. There were indeed people who stood up to the regime at great personal risk, some of whom paid the ultimate price. There were people who tried to help their persecuted friends and neighbours. In some of the recent books I also read that none of the other major world powers was particularly proactive in saving Central Europe's Jewish citizens from destruction by the Nazis. I think the antisemitism of that era was a much wider problem that manifested itself in the most horrific way under the Nazis..

However, the question remains, why is it so hard for us human beings to peacefully coexist? Why is it so hard for us to accept differences in religion, dress, customs, traditions and lifestyles? Why do we have to judge other groups negatively that are different from ours?

I guess some of this is answered by basic behavioural science, that we have a tendency to react to something that is unknown and different with fear and suspicion. Maybe our propensity to have prejudices is deeply rooted in our biological heredity of self-preservation.

Whatever it is, history is there to be learned from, and mistakes that were made should never be repeated. These questions have been tormenting me for a long time, and I don't have the answers. I have realized, however, that maybe as a response to the generation before me, I am going to try to be an advocate for diversity, for acceptance and tolerance, to make my own small contribution so we will never go down this road again.

Related Article:
Interview preview: Susanne Schleyer - A German photographer confronts history
What makes me tick & why I love Toronto





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